Alexander Melnikov. Photo by Mario Borggreve

Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov made his impressive local debut this afternoon in the concert hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with an epic performance of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues. The ambitious program, rarely performed live, unfolded over three hours that grew more interesting and engaging as it progressed. That's a pretty tough assignment for one man at a piano to pull off, and though I wouldn't say Melnikov didn't break a sweat, his performance projected confidence and mastery from start to finish.

To watch Melnikov perform is to see an artist deeply engaged with their work. Neither flashy nor detached, he just seems fully engaged. At times he would lift a free hand into the air and move it in a fluid motion akin to that of a conductor, though I couldn't tell if he was communicating with the score or the piano (the piano, by the way, seemed to have something wrong with it- strange little sounds emanated from it once in awhile throughout the performance). It wasn't overdone, or dramatic, but appeared an organic part of how he interprets a piece.

The concert was broken into three parts, the first of which were the first twelve preludes and fugues (each piece contains a prelude followed by a fugue based upon it, the model of course being Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier ). The variety Shostakovich brought to these is just short of astonishing, more so given that they were written in a relatively brief time span. These don't sound like mid-20th Century pieces- they hearken back to Bach, Chopin and contain heavy elements of the Romantic, yet they never reek of the museum and only rarely touch down directly on an earlier influence. They sound timeless.

After the second intermission Melnikov sat down at the bench and went straight into the 17th piece, which was the only one to distinctly call to mind another composer's work, and it was Albeniz of all people. By the time he got to the 20th, the herculean nature of the program started to take its toll and Melnikov had to stop for a moment and shake out his limbs before resuming the performance. It was the only time he did so all afternoon. The rest of the time he just bent to the task at hand, giving a special physical flourish to the final piece, the largest and most expansive, which was truly mesmerizing.

It was all so simple in its way, but in that simplicity was easily one of the best performances I've seen this year.

I'd also like to acknowledge the superb program notes by Eric Bromberger, which illuminated each piece with precision and clarity, greatly adding to overall enjoyment of the concert- a comment I heard from more than a few in the audience.

The concert was presented by San Francisco Performances, who will bring him back in May to perform with his regular collaborator Isabelle Faust in a program of Beethoven sonatas including the Kreutzer. Don't miss it.